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James Garner: 1928-2014

JGJames Garner, who died on July 19 at the age of 86, was quintessentially modern (in the best sense of the term), masculine and American.

His screen persona was easygoing, strong and resolute, whether portraying a player in TV’s Maverick or opposite the indomitable Doris Day in The Thrill of it All and Move Over, Darling (both 1963). His dark Indian handsomeness perfectly fit heroic, military roles in The Great Escape and The Americanization of Emily and Garner exuded masculinity without coming off as brooding, tortured or macho like some of his tough guy peers. He conveyed the sense he could knock an adversary out with a single punch while equally portraying a subtle quality that he’d only do so upon his own independent judgment that taking a swing was warranted, was his decision alone and that he would do so almost always as a last resort.

Blending comedy and drama and making it look seamlessly integrated, the Korean War veteran kept his most challenging roles grounded in reality with an intensity rarely seen among actors of his type, caliber and range. In The Children’s Hour, he plays a doctor in love with one of the female teachers accused of lesbianism in Lillian Hellman’s story of friendship and persecution, yet he does so deftly without overwhelming the tale and all while adding depth to every scene. It’s a small, serious and crucial role which delivers an early glimpse at his ability to play men of the mind.

He played off forbidden sexual orientation again in 1972’s They Only Kill Their Masters with June Allyson and fabulously as the object of Julie Andrews’ sexual impersonator’s affections in Victor/Victoria (1982) after returning to television as the title’s reformed criminal character in NBC’s successful crime comedy-drama The Rockford Files. By then, his charisma, dry wit and physical attractiveness were a tonic for troubled times and became popular in the culture, parlaying into an endorsement deal for a commercial series about Polaroid’s cameras featuring Mariette Hartley.

James Garner’s humor was always sharp, not snide. His persona was a bit jaded, not cynical. He was never depraved. His characters were always smart, attuned to reality and ultimately interested in achieving some higher value, whether helping a troubled friend on Rockford or stepping up to help the helpless, as he did in trying to rescue Donald Pleasance’s blind man in The Great Escape, a role which capably demonstrates his skill in combining the qualities of a big and tall friendly U.S. soldier with a modern sensibility to be the non-conformist who is confident to take on a task no one else will dare attempt and to do so with humor, grace and kindness. Garner played some variation of this unique mixture in many dimensional performances; in Grand Prix (1966), Skin Game (1971), Murphy’s Romance (1985), the CBS medical drama Chicago Hope, Space Cowboys (2000), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), and, of course, as Duke in The Notebook (2004). He was like a more modern, enlightened version of Clark Gable or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

James Garner had the movie star looks, charm and larger than life heroism. But he possessed a distinctly American characteristic of wanting to do what’s right even when doing what’s right is not obvious. With his body, eyes and tone of voice, he expressed an attitude of ‘to hell with what others think’ in each climactic scene with just the right degree of Devil-may-care and heroism to make the conflict resolution seem jovial, serious and never without the top value clearly at stake – with the dilemma never taken lightly, unseriously or undertaken as a trivial or reckless gesture. That he acted with an exact balance of ease and self-confidence is why his death is widely impacting people who live in an age when men of action, reason and joie de vivre are especially rare, particularly in pictures.

He wrote his memoirs with Jon Winokur a few years ago (read my review here) and capped off a remarkable career with the equally remarkable story of triumph in his personal life over an evil stepmother who physically, sexually and in all ways abused the Garner children. That James Garner chose to come out and speak up is an honest, strong testament from an amazingly talented and entertaining artist. Now that he is gone, it is perhaps better known that he also embodied the virtues of characters he portrayed. This makes watching his screen performances more rewarding.

May James Garner rest in peace.

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

DOTPOTA posterLike its rebooted predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offers more of the same exciting, escapist fare. These pictures are, like the original 1968-1973 films for 20th Century Fox, designed for mass entertainment. At their best, they provoke thought with thrills.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is more visceral than the 2011 movie. Taking place years after the simian flu spread and wiped out most humans, the apes and their clans have returned to the forest similar to where they once came from when they were brought for experiment by man to civilization. They live amongst the trees, swinging from the start as they did in the first movie, traveling in herds and memorizing slogans that “ape shall not kill ape.” As we see when Dawn commences, civilization has nearly dimmed to nothingness, save for a band of rogue human scientists and adventurers who seek to enlighten what is left of humanity by setting forth into the forest and restarting a great dam built by man.

The apes know nothing of this plan and the first half of Dawn shuttles back and forth between good apes, such as leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and intellectual Maurice (Karin Konoval), and bad apes, such as Koba (Tony Kebbell), and the equivalent good and bad humans. It’s as much a dichotomy between nature and civilization as between ape and human and as the humans are drawn into the woods, the apes are transformed by what remains of San Francisco and various factions face off in relatively predictable ways. Multiple subplots and themes – tribalism versus individualism, primitivism versus civilization, barbarism versus rationality – play out as they did in the previous Fox Apes‘ series (exempting the godawful Mark Wahlberg reboot in 2001, which merits not a single further thought), with nothing especially deep or challenging but enough to think about along racial and class themes and what passes for ethical treatment of animals.

Even the worst humans and apes, such as Koba and a nasty human who smokes – smokers are always portrayed as nasty, aren’t they? – have a point. Humans, led by Keri Russell, Jason Clarke and an idealistic young artist (Kodi Smit-McPhee), earn ape trust while Gary Oldman tends to fortress San Francisco and Koba hasn’t really changed since he first appeared. When the battle begins, it’s easy to see where the collectivism, militarism and power-lust will lead and, as anyone who recalls Charlton Heston’s famous line from the 1968 original can tell, the prospect of man versus ape versus ape versus man dimming the lights to the point of extinction is never far from possible. This new Fox series is exciting and challenging enough to entertain while asking what breaks the ties that bind and bonds the broken ties.

Movie Review: ‘America’ by Dinesh D’Souza

America poster D'SouzaEmphasizing emotions over facts, the propellant and powerful America: Imagine the World Without Her, co-written and co-directed by conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, teems with a proper American sense of life. It is limited in its power, which strongly builds yet quickly dissipates, by what amounts to a faith in individualism. Evoking Ronald Reagan, D’Souza understands what it means to make use of facts and history in words and pictures and there are plenty of each in America. But this independent movie, which strikes a chord in this deeply wounded and crippled nation, is not a recreation of history. It is not a documentary. It is not a philosophical examination of the country for which it is named.

America is pure, potent propaganda. As such, it is relatively well done. Better than Sicko, or most conservative-themed movies, America, which I saw at a screening during the libertarian FreedomFest in Las Vegas, where I had the opportunity to meet Mr. D’Souza, grabs a hold on what’s meaningful about the United States and, in certain stories and segments, portrays an American sensibility. This is not to say everything depicted, with historical portrayals and reenactments, is merely superficial. Much of what’s here is compelling. Some of the tales and excerpts are thought-provoking. Everything is put together. Nevertheless, America amounts to an exercise in “what if…?”

It takes 15 minutes to get going, following a Revolutionary War setup, unmistakably themed to sacrifice, that undercuts the picture’s call to resistance. The five-part movie covers the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War 2 and what narrator D’Souza describes as the restoration, which very much in this perilous time remains to be realized (this is why it’s an emotional film for those who love the country). Beginning with images celebrating the Industrial Revolution, which the film never accounts for, America breaks down the basic case for Barack Obama as an American destroyer. This case is made with emotionally powerful symbols, such as the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the White House and Mount Rushmore, being visually erased as the argument against America is made with key interviews from leftist principals – Chomsky, multiculturalists and others – interviewed by D’Souza. Their points are represented, not laid out, and he deals with their points with relative clarity and even-handedness.

D’Souza is not exhaustive, however, and he doesn’t pretend he wants to be. He hasn’t a moment to spare, briskly moving along to relevant facts, points and counterpoints, and the audience will learn about black slaveowners (yes, you read that right), Frederick Douglass meeting Abraham Lincoln, New Left terrorist and college professor Bill Ayers, the selling of Manhattan by Indians, and one exceptional black entrepreneur. As the five-point case against America is made – racism is central – D’Souza convincingly illustrates with his excerpts, facts and visuals that Obama, Elizabeth Warren and other New Leftists seek not to remake America but to unmake America and by the evidence presented here and not presented here, the proposition is undeniable. He does so ploddingly, with a proper and searching tone, stating rightly that “if [Americans'] wealth is stolen [as leftists claim], then we must give it back.” D’Souza is a sincere advocate and he is also persuasive. After Texas Sen. Ted Cruz makes a brief appearance in a segment on the La Raza accusation that the U.S. seized Mexico’s territory, D’Souza asks “how many people in Mexico today wish the U.S. had kept all of Mexico?”

The “what if…?” theme plays across America, underpinning the entire experience, which is compiled of solid stories about great Americans such as Douglass, Lincoln and General George Washington among others, portrayed in bits by poorly cast actors who recreate certain excellent moments in U.S. history that counter leftist dogma time and again and build to a strong case for U.S. moral superiority, though D’Souza does not and would not put it that way. He relies instead on the conservative, which is to say Judeo-Christian, ethic that America is good because she helps others. Citing U.S. sacrifice in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany, he correctly demonstrates that the U.S. acted in self-sacrifice, not self-interest, in each major war. He will not even cite as a side effect that the U.S. gained from any military action; we sacrifice property, oil and lives for the sake of others. Of course, this plays right into the leftists’ agenda, but D’Souza soldiers on in defense of capitalism – presumably because that, too, helps others – making a strong and effective and, exploiting his own ethnic origins in India, humorous case. The argument for the freedom that brought the industrial revolution is always mixed with selflessness, whether praised by Bono or faith-based Star Parker; by America‘s reckoning, capitalism only exists at the mercy of serving God (says Star Parker) and helping others.

But capitalism is good, D’Souza argues, with Bono making the most powerful speech – “wealth in the U.S. is not stolen – it’s created” – and he explains his case in everything from hamburgers to the iPhone. America assails ObamaCare, which is correctly accused of achieving what D’Souza calls a “masterful distortion and extortion” against the nation which gives the impression that Obama’s for us against insurance companies when, in fact, as the fascist scheme necessitates, ObamaCare is for crony insurers against us. That he cashes in by tracing ObamaCare’s origins to radical leftist Saul Alinsky, who influenced both Obama and would-be president Hillary Clinton, is mitigated only by his glossing over the fact that she was drawn into her leftist dogma by a Christian minister. America is thus enlightening, with fresh, relevant facts and a few surprising stings against the NSA and, by implication, conservatives who oppose whistleblower Edward Snowden, ending with a sweeping, tense and emotional roundup to assure the audience that the opponent of Obama who loves America for being good is not alone.

What constitutes the good, especially in an anti-Obama, anti-New Left propaganda picture featuring O.J. Simpson‘s lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, is left undefined or, worse, in service of the New Left’s moral premises. But this will not stop America from igniting passion for Americanism and making decent Americans feel good and that’s not nothing, which is what we get from the Nothing Man. Dinesh D’Souza has made a movie that makes good points for the U.S. and ends with images of Jesse Owens and Elvis Presley and this indicates that he gets what’s great about America, to paraphrase his hero, Ronald Reagan. But he does not define or explain America’s essential principles – not once does his America name individual rights or individualism as the nation’s founding ideal – and this keeps the movie firmly in the feel-good camp; no more, no less.


Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged, Part 3

ASP3WIJG posterAs I previewed last month, the new and final part of libertarian businessman John Aglialoro’s independent movie trilogy adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, features Christian libertarian ex-congressman Ron Paul of Texas. It’s a plot point that, however small, makes no dramatic sense. Like much of this movie, easily the worst of the three pictures, Ron Paul’s cameo both distracts from whatever remains of Rand’s philosophical theme and distorts the meaning of Atlas Shrugged.

Introduced by John Stossel, screened at this year’s libertarian FreedomFest in Las Vegas and opening in theaters nationwide this September, the film, Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt?, fundamentally changes Rand’s plot (stop reading this if you insist on seeing movies without any essential plot knowledge).

I’ll get right to the fact that Atlas Shrugged 3 gives Rand’s brilliant story a happy and, even on its terms, undeserved ending. With an awful cast (the emaciated actress playing Dagny this time misinterprets the character’s rationality as a blank slate) and forementioned transgressions peppered throughout the 90-plus minute picture, the movie pastes a news montage and begins in earnest with a poorly staged adaptation of the 20th Century Motor Company scene. Everyone looks like an actor and the extras overemote. They’re not alone. John Galt is portrayed by an actor who means well but is apparently directed to come off as a soap or soft core porn star. “This is John Galt speaking…” should be delivered with a blended sense of heart-skipping dread and anticipation, both crashing down and cashing in on the events preceding the great, momentous line. Here, it plays as a self-conscious voiceover. This is Galt as studmuffin, not as the man who invents – and stops – the motor of the world.

As depicted, Galt’s Gulch could double for a Hallmark Christmas movie, complete with luminaria, and Francisco d’Anconia, who is supposed to have grown up with Dagny, is played by an actor who appears to be old enough to be her grandfather. At least he projects competence. This Dagny is so vacuous she couldn’t run a rinse cycle let alone a transcontinental railroad. When she awakens after Part 2s plane crash in the Valley, the face with no fear, no pain and no guilt achingly portrayed in Rand’s poetic scene is nowhere to be found. Neither is Ayn Rand’s crucial line about never needing to take any of it seriously. There are only actors who resemble the Marlboro man (Ellis Wyatt), male model types in neatly trimmed facial hair (Ragnar) and Foster Grants (Galt) and lots of bugs around Hugh Akston. Somehow, Taggart Transcontinental, the best thing about Part 1, became the equivalent of a commuter rail line. Forget about making love on the train tracks, too.

It gets worse. With chants of “We Want Galt!” from the American public, the opposite of Rand’s point in the novel, which dramatized that the reader faces a fundamental philosophical choice, and cameos from Fox News personalities, Bitcoin and Glenn Beck, the central thesis that the power of the West is fading in proportion to enslavement of the man of ability is utterly trashed. In its place, without a single reference to altruism or self-sacrifice (on the contrary, Dagny silently sanctions sacrifice) is a bastardization (that is the word for this movie) of Atlas Shrugged as populism. With Eddie Willers saved, dispensing with another key point from the novel about what happens in such a collapse, and Cherryl’s life cruelly tossed aside as an afterthought – betraying what Rand’s philosophy holds as the ultimate value – the theme here is that libertarianism will save the world. Among the glaring inconsistencies and inversions are Dagny’s ever-changing hair from straight to permanent wave and back, clean-shaven villains and facial-haired heroes and, worst of all, Galt’s agonizing torture minimized in every sense; the counterpoint to Christ on the cross is reduced to a carefully posed and partially clothed actor making faces to special effects.

That it’s all dramatized in the style of a flat, boring cable movie where nodding off makes not a lick of difference seems to fit what has turned out to be an ill-conceived undertaking by a businessman who does not understand the novel. The proof of this comes straight from the businessman’s mouth. As Aglialoro told the premiere audience, he made this trilogy to “save America from government.” Herein lies the libertarian’s anti-intellectual error across the decades. Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged (and Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism) do not in any sense seek to save America from government. Atlas Shrugged dramatizes the heroic tale of a life lived large and, to the extent it’s about the collapse of the West, it’s about saving America from government control. Atlas Shrugged Part 3, as part of the libertarian’s counterfeit claim to Rand’s philosophy, totally fails to check its premises.

TV & DVD Review: ‘Path to Paradise’ (HBO)

PTP posterA story very much of its time, with indictments of individual liberty and with apologies for Islam, the made-for-cable Path to Paradise: The Untold Story of the World Trade Center Bombing is a capable account of what led to the February 26, 1993, Islamic terrorist attack on the Twin Towers before Moslem jihadists brought them down and mass murdered 3,000 people eight years later.

What’s unique about this picture, which premiered on premium cable channel Home Box Office (HBO) on June 14, 1997, is that it aired after the first major Islamic terrorist attack on the U.S. mainland though before the worst act of war in U.S. history. Both assaults were initiated by the same idea-driven fundamentalists and against the same primary target that would be forced by faith-based monsters to collapse on September 11, 2001. This provides an interesting window through which to examine HBO’s telefilm as a fact-based TV drama with enough time and distance from both strikes on the two towers.

As with almost every film about Islamic terrorist attacks ever made, Path to Paradise is bad on framing the enemy’s philosophy and better on recreating dramatic tension. Historians can see and judge for themselves, and there is a significant library of movies to study, that movies about acts of war by jihadists diminish the role of jihad – the Islamic faith’s tenet that life is an unending political struggle and one must wage war on the infidel – in direct proportion to the proliferation of the siege. For example, the earliest pictures about attacks on Americans on planes, ships and diplomatic missions explicitly name and identify, and often explore, Islam as the root of radical Moslem motive to strike down the infidel (anyone associated with the West). As recently as 1996, with Stuart Baird’s excellent Executive Decision starring Kurt Russell and Halle Berry, deeply religious Moslems are rightly depicted and named as seeking to destroy the West with catastrophic acts of war.

This is hardly the case anymore, and, as attacks get more catastrophic, references to Islamic terrorism shrink. The worst movies, such as Steven Spielberg’s Munich, imply that these acts of war are justified. Path to Paradise falls somewhere in between, neither ignoring and rationalizing jihad nor properly pegging Islam as the source for the worst modern acts of war. One Islamic character, based on an Egyptian who purportedly tried to warn the U.S. about the parking garage bombing of the Twin Towers, insists that Islam means peace.

Path to Paradise, which co-stars Marcia Gay Harden, is, as its title suggests, focused on what motivates Islamic terrorists to commit mass murder, which they did on that winter morning in lower Manhattan, blowing up a rented van, injuring 1,000 and killing six people. Here, Peter Gallagher (the film’s best asset and in one of the actor’s strongest performances) portrays FBI Special Agent John Anticlev recounting in retrospect how he and NYPD Detective Lou Napoli (Paul Guilfoyle), who were part of a joint task force on counterterrorism in the New York area, tried to catch and stop the Moslem radicals before they struck. After an assassin (Shaun Toub), who follows the commands of a blind jihadist sheik (Andreas Katsulas), murders a rabbi, it’s the good New York cops versus the bad and incompetent cops, who refuse to judge Islamic terrorist videos and writings – one translator dismisses the hateful, anti-American ideas as “Islamic poetry” – and the terrorists only fail to bring down the twin skyscrapers through their own errors. Aided by an Islamic bomber (Art Malik) who sails through U.S. immigration despite being in violation of the law, the terrorists come, go and attack as they please.

This leads the Gallagher character to conclude that freedom of religion is the problem, a barrier to stopping crime and acts of war. But Path to Paradise repeatedly demonstrates and dramatizes to the contrary in spite of itself, showing that a nation up to here in Big Government with layers and layers of controls and bureaucracies is at the mercy of those who follow rules. In an early pre-Mom role, actress Allison Janney appears as a policewoman who properly ridicules the incompetence of the federal government in fighting Islamic terrorism. So much of what’s depicted here, and this telefilm aired years after the 1993 attack, prefigures the government’s total dereliction of providing a national defense.

After the rabbi was gunned down by a jihadist, for instance, a government spokesman rushed to judgment and declared that there was “no indication at all” of a jihadist conspiracy, just like today’s government spokesmen do about Moslem attacks on the U.S. at Fort Hood, Boston and Benghazi. The police statement was made when evidence indicated that the opposite was true.

It’s tragic, too, that Marcia Gay Harden’s FBI agent deadpans to the informant that “the FBI doesn’t get to Libya much,” when he comes clean about the blind sheik’s jihadist plots in Africa (the Obama administration supposedly sent the FBI to Libya to investigate the 9/11/2012 attack on Americans at Benghazi). The reality that the plot to destroy the West and take over the world for barbarism is winning is undeniable as the informant talks about plans to remove Egyptian dictator and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak. Like so much of what’s depicted in Path to Paradise, that happened months and years ago.

Nothing is so obvious, of course, as one watches this movie, as the fact that the Twin Towers would soon be downed and Islamic law would spread across the globe, gather power and topple country after country from Algeria to Iraq (now emerging as a new caliphate) as forecast by the lone voices against jihad who are deemed too harsh, extreme and pro-Western. Structured like a police procedural, the 90-minute Path to Paradise doesn’t get into the more detailed plot points, including what biological agent may have been prepared for or laced in the 1993 World Trade Center bomb, but it is an excellent example of what powers up the jihad and allows it to spread, fester and annihilate. In fact, unintentionally, the picture’s end credits punctuate the point that appeasement of jihad – the West’s refusal to name, identify and destroy state sponsors of Islamic terrorism – is ending America from within: a disclaimer as the towers still stand while the credits roll reads: “While based upon actual events, this film portrays the actions of a small group of individuals. It does not reflect the beliefs of the majority of Muslims and Arabs.”

How do the 1997 filmmakers know what they claim to know about the beliefs of most Arabs and Moslems? Blank out. Public opinion polls are not cited as evidence, not that polls are permitted in religious dictatorships that dominated the Arab world, then and more so now.

With the Arab world from Africa to Asia disappearing into a barbaric caliphate rising against the West, that statement that most Moslems are peaceful cannot be accepted as true. The towers are destroyed. The Pentagon has been attacked. The rights of the individual are under siege from an omnipotent American state rising in proportion to the rise of jihad and not a single counterrevolution against Islamism has taken root in the Arab world.

Path to Paradise despite the drawbacks provides an account of how the looming empty spaces and spreading darkness came to be.